Do you bounce back from obstacles or do you tend to get mired in adversity? If you’ve largely avoided misfortune, how resilient can you be? How can you identify and develop the skills to prepare you for life’s inevitable difficulties?
In the past few months, both the New York Times and the New Yorker have published articles on the topic of resilience. The writer from the Times believes the term has become a “conveniently vacant” and “profoundly hollow” buzzword, a complaint from one generation to another—the elders professing concern that the younger people lack the bootstrapping ways of previous generations.
But resilience has many years of research and is much more than a buzzword or the basis for complaint, as the New Yorker explains well. It’s the product of a specific set of skills I believe all psychotherapists should be prepared to teach, and that all parents should understand on behalf of their children. It is worth keeping in mind that while we might wish to shield ourselves and our children from traumatic life experiences, these events have remarkably poor predictive power when it comes to happiness. For example, while we might guess that paraplegia would significantly alter a person’s happiness in the long term, what matters most is whether this particular form of adversity was processed and understood as traumatizing.
My job as a psychotherapist is first and foremost to clarify and further the goals of the person in therapy. Almost always, this involves teaching emotional and behavioral skills, usually with cognitive behavioral and solution-focused therapy techniques. While it might seem as if resilience is an inherited character trait, it’s a mind-set that develops from learned skills. It’s a way we meet problems and make meaning out of our circumstances.
Shouldn’t lessons in resilience be taught in every therapist’s office?
Psychotherapists are powerful professional allies. We can help people learn to believe in their ability to control outcomes in their lives. We can teach them how to have a confident and optimistic view about social opportunities, which may lead to greater support and recovery. We can help them train their minds to reframe darkness to allow for cracks of light to come in. Most importantly, we can keep reminding them that in the face of traumatic events there is always a choice at some point in the healing process: (1) continue to linger in the trauma or (2) take the opportunity to learn and grow.
To be sure, negative events are not to be celebrated. One thing I always make clear to people in the therapy room is that as important as it is to learn resilience skills, I never, ever think unfortunate or traumatic events are necessary for building character or developing coping skills.
To be sure, negative events are not to be celebrated. One thing I always make clear to people in the therapy room is that as important as it is to learn resilience skills, I never, ever think unfortunate or traumatic events are necessary for building character or developing coping skills. No person who is experiencing difficulty should feel like they were knocked over for some greater purpose of betterment, and no worthy parent would wish for their children to be hurt, in body, mind, or otherwise. There is a certain perversity in trying to feel grateful for an obstacle that has altered your ability to enjoy life.
Nobody is fully protected from hardship, however, and sooner or later we all need the tools to work through things. As my dad is fond of saying in response to anyone who laments growing older, “It’s better than the alternative.” Indeed, we are alive. We have choices. We can become good problem solvers, learn how to make friends, and much more. We can look to our communities for examples of others who had similar problems and perhaps apply some of their wisdom to our own circumstances.
As a psychotherapist, I revere resilience even as I wrap my arms around the depths of life’s most difficult emotions. The experience I want for people in therapy is to feel fully supported, understood, and challenged by the research-based knowledge I have to provide them in their times of trouble. Parents strive to provide this same environment to their children—an empathetic environment that doesn’t shy away from promoting the skills they need to learn to endure difficult feelings and circumstances. Let’s call on all helping professions to strengthen us in our times of need.
- Gilbert, D. (2006). Stumbling on happiness. New York City, NY: Alfred A Knopf for Random House, Inc.
- Konnikova, M. (2016). How People learn To become resilient. The New Yorker. Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/the-secret-formula-for-resilience
- Sehgal, P. (2015). The Profound emptiness of resilience. The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/06/magazine/the-profound-emptiness-of-resilience.html
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